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Explorers and their Explorer IIs

With its stark orange accents and truly unique, borderline checkerboard indices, Rolex’s Ref. 1655 Explorer II stands out boldly against the rest of the Rolex "Sport Watch" lineup.

Originally developed to suit the needs of spelunking explorers, who experienced difficulty discerning between day and night during extended periods inside caves, the reference would later find its way onto the wrists of all sorts of accomplished and daring individuals and today we explore a selection of mavericks that afford this collection its namesake.

Reinhold Andreas Messner

Reinhold Andreas Messner is noted as one such adventurer to wear and use the Rolex Explorer II and can be seen in Rolex ads as well as in photographs throughout his career. Messenger is a mountaineer and explorer who made the first solo ascent of Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen, alongside fellow climber and explorer Peter Habeler. Messner has a wide range of exploration and adventuring accomplishments.

Some of Reinhold Messner’s most notable achievements include: Being the first person to cross Antarctica and Greenland without snowmobiles or dog sled, the first climber to ascend all fourteen peaks over 8,000 meters (26,000 ft) above sea level and he also crossed the Gobi Desert solo just to name a few… Messner has also published more than 80 books about his experiences as a climber and explorer. In 2018, he received jointly with Krzysztof Wielicki the Princess of Asturias Award in the category of Sports. Messner also wore other watches outside of the Rolex Explorer II Ref. 1655 including Rolex Oyster Quartz references and even an Omega Speedmaster during a 1989 Antarctic expedition.

Julian Nott

Unlike Reinhold Messner who ascended to great heights by way of mountain ranges, Julian Nott took a different and perhaps more technologically demanding route. Nott was a British balloonist who made a name for himself in 1974 after breaking the world ballooning altitude record. Before his attempt in Bhopal, India, the record (which he himself had previously set) stood at a staggering altitude of 35,971 feet, but after Nott was through, the number to beat would stand at 45,836 feet. This was realized thanks to their vessel through the skies, the Daffodil II, which was the largest balloon to ever have been constructed at the time. Moreover, it was designed and constructed by Nott himself.

During this feat of human achievement, Julian Nott wore a 1972 Ref. 1655 Explorer II on his wrist, which Rolex had supplied for the record-breaking voyage. Its involvement in the astonishing elevation ultimately resulted in both the watch and Nott being featured by the brand in various marketing materials, including print advertisements that touted his accomplishments. Famously, Rolex declared that “the Rolex Oyster is now guaranteed to float to 45,000 feet.”


Julian Nott wore a couple of other watches during his life including a Rolex 16760 “Fat Lady” Coke GMT which Rolex also leveraged in partnership in various ad campaigns. Julian Nott has gifted a two-tone Rolex Datejust ref. 16013 by Rolex in 1984 under the “Rolex Spirit Of Enterprise”. All 3 of Julian Nott’s Rolex were recently auctioned by the Nott estate in December of 2019 by Heritage Auctions in NYC after Julian Knott passed away tragically on March 25, 2019, after an accident on the ground following a successful landing of an experimental balloon.

Jean-François Pernette

Just a few years later, and back on the ground, another gentleman would cement his place both in the history of exploration and association with the Ref. 1655 Explorer II. Jean-François Pernette was exactly the type for which the timepiece was designed for, given his extensive work in the field of speleology, which started from the tender age of just 13 years old. Pernette began his career in France, exploring the caves of Bordeaux, and would soon distinguish himself among speleologists after discovering a previously unknown, underground river in the French Pyrenees. Later, he’d go on to lead several expeditions of note, including the first French national expeditions in Papua New Guinea in 1980, along with many in Chile’s Patagonia in the year 2000.

As alluded to earlier, the Ref. 1655 Explorer II on Pernette’s wrist was of extreme value thanks to the timepiece’s fourth hand, which served as a GMT indicator. When spending great lengths of time surrounded by total darkness, it was still important to note the difference between day and night, and with this simple yet impactful feature, this was made possible. Knowing this made expeditions far more effective, as energy could be reserved while losing one’s natural sense of time. Like Nott, Jean-François Pernette’s exploits were recognized by Rolex, earning him a place in the brand’s marketing materials, and one of their coveted Awards for Enterprise. 

Haroun Tazieff

Last but most certainly not least, a briefing of notable figures in the Explorer II world would be far from complete without mention of Haroun Tazieff. Born in Warsaw in 1914, Tazieff lead a life that was anything but conventional as a result of his chosen path. After studying both agronomy and geology in Belgium, Tazieff would launch into a legendary career of volcanology and geology, while capturing it all his adventures on film. If you ever think you’ve had a tough day at work, consider than Haroun Tazieff had attempted to descend into active lava lakes on multiple occasions in Sicily and the Congo for sampling purposes, risking his life in the name of exploration and science. Then again, it’s unlikely that Tazieff would’ve described the feats which defined his career as “work.”

Keeping time throughout his travels and continuing our theme was the Ref. 1655, in all its orange-handed glory. In the Rolex advertisement which he’s featured in, a photo is shown of Tazieff on Mount Nyiragongo, where he can barely be seen against the harsh, lava-covered landscape. On that day, a Rolex was on his wrist, but only Tazieff was daring enough to position himself so near to the action. As the ad reads “Haroun Tazieff always wears a Rolex, though unfortunately, the camera could not get close enough to show it.”

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